Patricia Lyons photo
What is modern?
With myriad architectural styles falling under this descriptive umbrella, it's difficult to precisely define this style. But to Freddie Gray, modern is more than a style of architecture. Modern is a way of living in the moment.
"Modern is whatever reflects you instead of trying to reflect another time period," she explains. "It's ease. It's feeling comfortable in your own surroundings and wanting other people to feel comfortable, too."
By that definition, Freddie and Lawrence Gray's Near West End home is thoroughly modern, though from the exterior, it looks anything but. The stately, two-story, clapboard Colonial was designed in 1938 by Richmond architect Clarence Huff for Pulitzer Prize-winning former Richmond Times-Dispatch editor Virginius Dabney.
Inside, beyond the topiary-flanked front door, it's all about comfortable spaces, exuberant color, contemporary art and glamorous touches that perfectly reflect Gray's own aesthetic, developed through her work with high-profile design professionals.
An English major at the University of North Carolina, Gray moved to Washington, D.C., in the mid-1980s with dreams of working for National Geographic. Instead, she found herself working as an office assistant to Hugh Newell Jacobsen, the world-renowned architect best known for designing homes in the International style. It's the style most people think of when they think "modern" — open spaces, lack of ornamentation and expanses of white.
After just two months with Jacobsen, Gray was promoted to execute the interiors of the homes he designed. "It was such an amazing time to be working with him," she says, "though I did not appreciate it at the time."
When Gray moved to Charlottesville so her husband could attend graduate school, she opened a small business selling painted furniture and accessories. Next, when they relocated to New York, she and friend Charlotte Wickham began a decorative painting business. Through her painting jobs she met well-known interior designer T. Keller Donovan, for whom she eventually went to work as an assistant.
Donovan's "traditional with a twist" style is quite different from Jacobsen's modernist approach, but Gray says she learned valuable lessons from each man. "Keller has a fresh, graphic style," she says. "I learned about texture and color from him. … Jacobsen taught me how to think about a space. He would hate that I'm using all this color."
Gray, a native of West Palm Beach, Fla., recalls that she was initially uninspired by her Richmond home's Colonial exterior. "I grew up around Mediterranean houses," she says. "This is not the type of house I pictured myself in." But she was blown away once she got inside and saw its enormous potential. Coming from a small, New York apartment, the expansive entry hall, heart pine floors, light-filled kitchen and flowing floor plan "were just heaven."
As the Gray family has grown to include three children, the home has grown, too, with the addition of a rear family room, a back porch and terrace. With the help of Phil Zepp Construction, the Grays recently converted their third floor into a comfortable suite for guests. The same firm is currently remodeling the basement into a spacious family retreat.
"This is a feel-good, happy house," Gray says. "It is a great family house. I think [the Dabneys] left their good spirits behind."
Gray's own good spirits, and her upbringing in tropical and glamorous West Palm, are evidenced in the home's fresh and fun interior design. Bamboo accents, grass-cloth-covered walls, seashells, tropical plants and flashes of bling all hint at her roots.
"I love Florida and the sun and beach," she says, "but I try not to overdo it. I don't want this to feel like a beach house, but I think [Florida] affected me a lot."
The recently redecorated foyer offers an unexpected surprise with custom-made Chippendale wainscoting backed by antiqued mirror glass, an idea she copied from designer Charlotte Moss. Local carpenter Andrew Ligon fabricated the complicated design. Elegant arched doorways and caramel-colored Venetian-plastered walls combine with the reflective surfaces to create a dramatic space.
In the kitchen, an apple-green glass mosaic backsplash was recently installed to add a vibrant pop of color against glossy white cabinets. Double-hung windows entirely fill one wall and afford an airy view into the well-landscaped back yard. Fun bar stools and vibrant green chairs from West Elm add a suitably casual vibe to this oft-used family space.
Gray also recently finished redecorating the living room with help from friend Amanda Nisbet, whom she has known since they both lived in Charlottesville. Today, Nisbet is a well-known New York interior designer whose own apartment was recently featured in House Beautiful.
Nisbet helped choose the living room palette around Gray's choice of wall color, Benjamin Moore's "American Cheese" — an apt name for the intense yellow hue. A gorgeous kiwi-and-white silk Ikat fabric also inspired the room's color scheme. The pattern gets lots of play as it envelopes the room's many windows in luxurious draperies.
Nisbet designed a huge, square coffee table to anchor the large space. Local metalsmith Brad Robinson fabricated the base, and the top is made of gorgeous cream- and tan-banded onyx. Two lemony yellow sofas sit on either side — one belonged to Lawrence's mother's great-aunt; the other was custom-made to match by Harrison Higgins here in Richmond.
Glamorous touches abound, in sexy gold-and-leopard campaign stools, sensuous silk pillows and an elegant white and gold leaf console table from Niermann Weeks that is topped with a pair of funky, acid-green 1960s lamps.
But despite the inspired furniture and fabric choices, it is the Grays' art collection that really stands out. Robert Stuart's geometric, abstract color field painting hangs above the mantel, its bands of yellow and green seemingly vibrating on the canvas. A large, colorful Wolf Kahn landscape draws the eye to the front wall. Smaller works by Janet DeCover and Theresa Pollak also punctuate the space.
Gray is the current president of Canvas, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' support group for young collectors and art enthusiasts. "It is all about discussing and learning," she explains. "We experience art in a fun and educational way."
Bold, mostly abstract artwork defines the Grays' home, in a collection encompassing local artists such as Sally Bowring and Laura Loe as well as internationally known talents such as Sally Mann and Ellsworth Kelly. "I love mixing modern art with a traditional house," Gray says. She also loves supporting artist friends, and looks to gallery owner and good friend Bev Reynolds for guidance.
Despite having lived in New York, the Grays did not start to collect art until they moved to Richmond. "This is such an amazing source for art," she says, "with so many artists, galleries and museums, and VCU."
Gray believes original art provides the finishing touch to a room, adding energy, vibrancy and life. "Art can really elevate the mood of a room," she says.
Canvas is a support group of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts composed of art advocates and young art collectors with an interest in furthering their knowledge of the arts. Founded by former museum director Michael Brand and his wife, Tina, Canvas provides access to art and artists through educational and social programs. Past events have included exclusive tours of private art collections, visits to artists' studios and gallery pre-opening discussions with artists. Canvas is open to all museum members. Annual membership dues are $150 for an individual and $300 for a couple. Call Haley McCall at 340-1477 for details.